Monday, February 14, 2011

A Question of Favourites

Having now ridden most of the bicycles profiled here, one question I often get is which are my favourites. If I had to buy a new transportation bike today, which one would it be? While I find it impossible to choose just one, I can tell you which I prefer from each of the categories I described earlier: heavy duty Dutch bikes, lightweight Italian city bikes, and middleweight "classic hybrids."

[image via Gazelle USA]

If I were in the market for a Dutch bike specifically, I think I would buy a Gazelle. Currently produced Gazelle bicycles are missing some of the charming details of their predecessors, such as the lugged connector between the curved top tube and the downtube, and the traditional bolted seatcluster. But they still have an attractive lugged fork crown, a predominantly lugged frame, and an elegant overall look. I would buy not the Toer Populair, but the Basic model (3 speed with coaster brake) for $859, and replace the saddle with my own. I prefer Gazelle to Batavus, because it seems better made. I prefer Gazelle to Workcycles, mainly because the Workcycles is too heavy for me. Also, both Workcycles and Batavus bikes have unicrown forks rather than lugged crown forks, and I just can't bring myself to choose a bike with that feature if I have other options.

One Dutch bike I have not yet tried is Achielle (which now has a US distributor), so I cannot say whether I'd prefer it to the Gazelle. Unlike most other modern Dutch bikes, it is still made in the EU and the pictures look fantastic, but nonetheless it is impossible to know without trying. If anybody's ridden one and can compare it to the other Dutch bikes, I'd love to hear about it.

[image via Bella Ciao]

If I were looking for a light but classic transportation bicycle, the choice is really just between the Italians: Abici and Bella Ciao. I would, and did, choose a Bella Ciao, because I prefer its ride quality and frame construction. I find the Bella Ciao to be less aggressive than the Abici, while being equally lightweight and fast - which, to me, makes for a more comfortable ride. And the unicrown fork on the Abici is, again, just not something I can live with. I also prefer the Bella Ciao's chaincase and handlebars, but those points are relatively minor in comparison. Both Abici and Bella Ciao frames are made in Italy.

[image via Adeline Adeline]

And finally, if I were looking for a midweight bicycle, I would buy a Retrovelo - the 3-speed Klara model for $1,450. Retrovelo bicycles are beautifully constructed, with impeccable lugwork and a mouth-wateringly gorgeous triple plate fork crown. And more importantly, I don't know of a single Retrovelo owner as of yet who is unhappy with the bike. Compared to Pashley and Velorbis, the Retrovelo is somewhat faster and does better up hills, as well as feels cushier over potholes. The handlebars and stem are not my cup of tea, and I do wish it had a coaster brake and a full chaincase. But the bike is otherwise so nice, that I find these features alarmingly easy to ignore. In short: I want one, but have absolutely no excuse and no money to get it.

While I hope this explains my own selection process, it would be good to hear different opinions. The new bike shopping season is just around the corner and many are starting to research bicycles again. Which bicycle did you choose to buy, or would you now choose to buy - and why? If you already own a classic transportation bike, are you happy with it, or are you considering switching to another?

40 comments:

  1. Veloria said.........
    "Which bicycle did you choose to buy, or would you choose to buy - and why? "

    For myself I have a passion for utility/transportation bikes that is life long. I really like all bikes that are "useful" in there function and looks. I care not one bit for drop bar racing bikes of any brand ,or kind, since to me they are a pain in the butt and the back.

    I also favor the granddad of all American transport/utility bikes the good ol' Cruiser.

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  2. I think Retrovelo is very cruiser-like. It has balloon tyres and very wide handlebars. Some like these features, and while I appreciate Fat Franks, I think for $100, I would replace Retrovelo's stem with a Nitto ($70) and use VO Porteur ($30) bars (but would have to make sure gear shifter & levers still fit). The bike would be just splendid then. I wonder if one of the existing chaincases could be installed.

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  3. I wonder if you can explain the whole Sturmey-Archer thing to me. I can't imagine living with such a close gear range. I use every gear on my bike every day, and I have a very wide range, from less than 1:1 to about 5:1. Is it just that you live and bike where it is pretty flat, or are you doing something else -- pumping and walking your bike up hills?

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  4. MDI - It doesn't ride like a cruiser at all. And while my instinct would be to replace the stem & handlebars as well, I wonder whether al alternative set-up would suit the overall look.

    Jon - I have a post about this preference here. It's actually somewhat hilly where I live, but the SA (and older Sachs) 3-speed hubs seem to suit me the best, on the right bike. I have no trouble going up short hills on my Gazelle or long hills on my Bella Ciao (which currently has a Shimano 3-speed, but I use it almost exclusively in 3rd gear, so that hardly makes a difference).

    Walt - If someone handed you $1,500 or so and forced you to get a bike (just one, and you have to give the rest back) with that money, what would you buy?

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  5. @ Jon Webb: "I have a very wide range, from less than 1:1 to about 5:1"

    You must have a triple up front and a fairly wide range in the rear, perhaps 32 to 56 up front, and 11 to 34 rear, or something similar.

    Personally, I have an 8 speed Shimano Nexus hub, which provides a 1:3 range. I have it set up so my low gear is about the same as yours (I imagine?), but the top gear is lower. I find I never use the top gear except when pedaling downhill, and even when I recently had an 11 mile commute with a few hundred feet of hills at the end/beginning, I never felt the need to go faster. But I rarely go faster than 18 mph even downhill, and am happy to spin 90 rpm, which with my 80 gear-inches top gear can get me to almost 22 mph.

    I can see the advantage of a 1:1 to 4:1 range (say 20 to 80 gear inches, for a slightly lower low gear, for steep hills), but I just don't see the need to pedal downhill for transportation. You only save a few seconds pedaling downhill, compared to just tucking in.

    And few road bikes (except for loaded touring) come with low gears below mine, at 26 gear inches.

    It's true that a 3-speed hub has even less range, just under a 2:1 ratio, but that can still get you a low gear of 30 and a high of 56, perfect for going 15 mph on flat ground, if you set it up right. Going downhill, you just coast, and for really steep hills you stand up, or get off and walk.

    Check out the calculations yourself: http://www.sheldonbrown.com/gears/

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  6. Re: Joseph E: I like pedaling downhill. I know it doesn't save much time, but it sure is fun. It's a reward for what came earlier, climbing one of Western PA's hills.

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  7. Jon Webb said...
    "I like pedaling downhill."


    SA fixed gear 3-speed hub? : )

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  8. Just do a hipster coast (take your feet off the pedals).

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  9. Retrovelo's are kind of sexy, though I can't explain why. Anybody else agree? They just kind of turn me on.

    Jon - I ride a 3-speed on hills. My legs have become strong enough so that it's not a problem, expect in the summer, when I can't avoid sweating on hills.

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  10. Velouria,
    You didn't ask me, but I like the question: "If someone handed you $1,500 or so and forced you to get a bike (just one, and you have to give the rest back) with that money, what would you buy?"

    I think I would get a Civia Loring. It is a great, practical bike made by an American company, to boot.

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  11. If I had to do it all over again it would be Rivendell all the way! Sam Hillborne and/or A Homer Hilson. I'll keep looking but my Sam is far better than anything else I own or have ridden. But, my experience is limited so I will always be on the lookout for as good or better.

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  12. lyen - Definitely. Still, for me when it comes to buying rather than just dreaming, I would not get a Retrovelo as my only bike - mainly because I like having a chaincase, and I am pretty sure it would be close to impossible to get one retrofitted on that frame. Also, replacing the hub with a coaster brake (a must for me), plus replacing the handlebar set-up, would be way too expensive.

    dweendaddy - Civia has some fans out there. I don't consider it a classic (as in traditional) transportation bike, which is why I don't list it among the manufacturer profiles.

    Jim - For me, Rivendell is fantastic as a touring bike, but for transportation I like internally geared hubs, chaincase, and a low step-through (not mixte) frame. A loop frame bike for transportation plus a diamond frame Rivendell for touring is a combination that works well for me.

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  13. When I first got my Retrovelo (which is that exact one above, actually), I had planned to swap out stem and handlebars but they functioned so well for me that they grew on me. The only thing I have changed is the grips.

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  14. What grips did you get?

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  15. I live in a hilly area of Eastern Australia, and have purchased a diamond frame Gazelle Toer Populair 8-speed about a month ago. I have changed only the padded leather grips, as I lost confidence in their ability to stay in place, otherwise so far the bike is great, both in terms of its ride and its appearance. The swept back bars do require some knee adjustment for tight, slow turns. The gear range is good, though it understandably lacks a real sub-walking pace first. I am using a pair of black and white Jetblack handgrips that clamp at both ends to the bars, one cut down for the nexus twistgrip with leather wrapped over the rubber grips.
    P.S. I'm a big fan of Lovely Bicycle .. great work !

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  16. neighbourtease - I rode my friend's Retrovelo twice, once for a brief period of time and another for a long ride, and found the handlebars distinctly too wide - so much so that my arms felt uncomfortable. But then I generally tend to like narrow handlebars.

    PeterMc - Not a fan of padded leather grips either! But thankfully, grips are just about the easiest thing to replace on a bike.

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  17. For utility/transportation bikes, I currently have a Univega hybrid I converted to drops (running 38c tires and canti brakes), as well as a Phillips 3 speed, though all of my bikes have seen commuter duty at some time or another.

    If I had the money and wanted a new bike, I'd get two - a bakfiets, and a Retrovelo Paul. Gorgeous bikes, and absolutely fantastic for the purposes for which they were designed.

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  18. Velouria said...
    :Walt - If someone handed you $1,500 or so and forced you to get a bike (just one, and you have to give the rest back) with that money, what would you buy?"

    That's easy for me since I've just done that last fall of 2010.

    I ordered a made to my order specs a Worksman Cruiser. The bike is equipped with alloy wheels/stainless spokes, a full coverage (wheels and all) yellow paint job, a Shimano coaster brake 7 speed hub, 36 tooth front sprocket and a drum front brake.

    I've added , custom bent handle bars, ergon handgrips, BMX pedals, water bottle holder, a am/fm radio & powered mini speakers, a Brooks B33 saddle, rear all steel carry rack/folding wire saddle bags and a Wald large front mesh basket .

    I'd guess that the total $$$$ is around $1500 until I add something else to the bike. I have planned to add lights but I will use the cheapo nashbar lights until I can engineer my own design. I love to tinker!!! :))

    Like I said...all functional, all utility.

    This bike is very heavy duty easily capable of doing anything I can ask of it unless it's racing and I don't do that!

    I know that the Cruiser isn't every bodies cup o'tea nor would they want a bike as heavy as mine but it's something I've wanted for a long time. Since I ride only in my small town it's just right for me and my uses. :)

    Thanks for asking.........

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  19. I really like the idea of a light, comfortable, classy bike like the Bella Ciao. And the one you are designing and selling through Harris seems reasonably priced. But like you with the Retrovelo, I cannot justify another bike at this time. Maybe someday . . .

    There is a Retrovelo on CL Portland and it's been posted for a while. And it's $1400. Maybe you could justify . . . just kidding :).

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  20. If I could only keep one of my bikes, it'd be my modified Torker Cargo-T, which is the budget version of the Batavus Personal Delivery.

    After installing different bars, saddle and pedals, custom grips, a lighting system, a wheel lock, better tires, mudflaps, and a NuVinci N360, I have a wonderfully functional transport bike with loads of cargo space and the gears for most terrain.

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  21. As a short person (5 ft 2), if I were starting from scratch (but with the knowledge of hindsight) to combine as many benefits as possible on one transport bike, spending under $1500, I think I'd do a 3-speed Abici, as their smaller frame fits perfectly and I'm not offended by their unicrown fork, which I think suits the simplicity of the bike.

    In my "stable" I have the single speed Abici for fun, and love how it combines uprightness with agility (not such a fan of the coaster brake - I like it as a brake, but am very clutzy with the pedal positioning issues). I love the fit of my small Pashley, but have found it too heavy/awkward for an ideal all purpose bike in a surprisingly hilly town (it's great for groceries).

    In actuality am hoping to achieve perfect all-roundness and fit with a 3-speed Orco Cicli Ariel, which is nearly done (yay!) But I could only justify that by selling my car! Otherwise I think I'd have tried to do something about upgrading my indulgent single-speed Abici to a 3 speed (possibly by selling it and replacing it.)

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  22. I've been thinking about this lately as I've never owned a utility bike that wasn't "vintage" (1970's or older). I really need to get out and test-ride some of these bikes that are mentioned here because my curiosity is getting the better of me. I'm pretty used to the quirks of having an older, steel bike but I'm wondering what the newer, steel transportation bikes ride. For example, the Gazelle really appeals to me as an all-around transport bicycle, and the thought of owning a bike with all brand-new components is really tempting. I often tire of dealing with some aspects of vintage bikes, like poor braking quality, older shifting mechanisms and the like.

    For those who own both vintage and new transport bicycles, how do you compare them? If you had to choose one over the other which would it be?

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  23. If someone were giving out money, given the steep hills here, I would take the Bella Ciao. I'm tempted by the Retrovelo with those big floating cream tires.... sigh. Then I think of trying to tow a baby trailer up a bridge.... I think lighter would be better.

    Plus I really like the full chaincase and the sweeping top bar on the Bella Ciao. I know this is all pie in the sky, but a girl can dream, right?

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  24. Walt - Wow, you're serious about liking these. So how does it work, do you order the bike and they mail it to you? Or do you live in the same area as where they make the bikes? I've never seen them sold in bike shops, or in the wild. And do you know whether they have any models with lugged crown forks?

    arevee - A used Retrovelo for $1,400? Jeez! That's how much the 3-speed version costs new.

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  25. No Nick - I am curious how your Orco will compare to the Abici!

    MFarrington - I prefer my 70s Raleigh DL1 and my 90s (vintage style, no longer produced) Gazelle to any equivalent made today. But, as you said, with vintage bikes there is the constant worry about component failure, unless you overhaul everything.

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  26. I don't know if it's a classic transportation but I will be staying with my commuter/touring KHS TR 101 which I've had for two years and ridden throughout all four seasons with the only adjustment being winter tires. I mentioned that in the other unpublished comment but thought I'd mention it again as it does directly answer your question.

    I have a 2008 Brodie B-Team road bike but I will probably never ride it again. Too bad, it's an awesome orange. Thing is, when I found the KHS TR 101 it became the practical favorite - especially after my wife gifted me a Brooks B-17 saddle.

    One vintage styled bike I would love to have but probably never will is called "Priest Bike" and manufactured by the Dutch bike co uk. That or their Transport both of which look something like the Gazelle shown above.

    Happy bicycling.

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  27. MDI, I have the Brooks grips made with the leather washers. I have super tiny hands, though, and wonder if I would like something smaller more.

    Velouria, I expected the bars would feel too wide for me since they really looked very wide but they turned out to be fine and feel expansive. I haven't ridden with narrow bars though so don't have much to compare them, too.

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  28. I have a couple sets of the Brooks grips and I like them. Not everyone does, though. It would be nice if Brooks came up with an updated version, slightly thinner and with less metal around the ends.

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  29. Velouria,

    I'm curious about your comments about the unicrown forks, as I've never thought about them before. Is there a technical reason, or do you just not like the look?

    Cheers,

    Greg

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  30. Hi,

    I really never heard of the Achielle bikes before and I'm from Holland! So I checked it and this is not a Dutch brand, but it's from Belgium. Thanks for pointing it out as I really like the looks of these bikes!

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  31. I have an orange Retrovelo and I love it more every time I ride it. I rode cycle support for a marathon in January. My two friends were on road bicycles. I beat them up the toughest hill -- and not just barely -- I left them in the dust. It does NOT ride like a cruiser! I have the 8-speed version because I will eventually live in Seattle and I'll need the low gears.

    The stem is kind of ugly and I may put Albatross bars on it some day. I am not terribly fond of the rear rack. I'll get around to crocheting a skirt guard, too. The headlight is disappointing and I will replace it with an Edelux. But these are little personal nitpicks. I LOVE THIS BICYCLE.

    I literally cannot wipe the smile off my face every single day on this bicycle. You want one, Veloria. You want one.

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  32. I have the same wimpy light on my Pashley. I have two cateyes mounted on the lugnuts (both sides) to actually see where I am going. Eventually, I will replace the whole setup with a nice, bright LED.

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  33. I would probably get the Workcycles Oma. It seems to have everything one could ever want. I've never ridden one before, but I never seem to hear anything bad about them. The only negative I can find is its weight, though since I'm about move to a flatter area, that wouldn't be a problem.

    Of course, one can only dream. I recently purchased a vintage Raleigh Lady's Sport (from the recommendation of this blog) from Ebay and will be receiving it sometime today! I am unbelievably excited. I know I will have to replace/fix a good amount of things on it, but I figure it's a good opportunity to learn more about bikes and how they operate. Plus it's easier for me to afford these things over time, rather than buying an amazing bike with a high upfront cost.

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  34. I'm looking at Adeline Adeline's website and they have some beautiful bikes. I'm itching to get a cruiser or a mixte as my next (fourth!) bike but I'm quite tall for a woman, 5'11", and I'm wondering if it's hard to find a frame that's large enough without spending a fortune. Any advice?

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  35. FWIW, I was surprised by how little the additional weight of the Workcycles bikes mattered when I rode them. They are exceptionally well-made and ride beautifully. A Workcycles bike is more than half my weight and I had no trouble with it at all.

    I think once you're talking about heavy bikes handling becomes so important and it's is way more complex (and personal) than just weight -- for example the Pashley I used to have is much lighter than a Workcycles Oma, yet I found the Workcycles to handle way better, and was easier to ride up hills, despite its additional weight. So I would hate for someone to be automatically deterred from such a great company by the idea that the bikes are too heavy. They may be! But try first.

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  36. @Lauren: I also have a Raleigh Sport (ladies). I had new wheels built for it, with a dynamo hub. I also bought new tires. Other than that, I just cleaned it up a bit. I really love it, too. It is light compared to the Retrovelo and the Panaracer tires that I put on it feel like fat balloon tires. I left the bike a little cruddy. It's my "beater." I have bicycle ADD, so I need more than one...

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  37. neighbourtease - The handling is fine, but I can barely lift a Workcycles Oma off the ground, let alone up the porch stairs several times a day, and I don't feel comfortable leaving a bike locked up outside overnight where I live. The Gazelle is just a tiny bit heavier than the Pashley and also does better up hills, but it's the limit for me as far as weight goes. The Workcycles I tried felt 5-10lb heavier than the Gazelle to me.

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  38. Now that the weather is getting better aned the days longer, I want to make it a point to get down to Waterfront Bicycle Shop to test ride the Achielle. I've looked at them closely there, and they are gorgeous! Each time I've been at that store, though, either the weather was aweful or I was in a rush, but I'm determined to ride one! (I really like this shop, btw)

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  39. Velouria,

    I'm intrigued by your comment that you would purchase the Gazelle Basic over the Toer Populaire. I am currently looking at both of these models (Toer Populaire 8, to be exact). Could you tell me why you prefer the one over the other? I've not had a chance to test-ride the Basic but I will.

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  40. Deborah - The Basic model is really the same bike (same frame), but with a 3-speed coaster brake hub (which I prefer to the 8 speed hand brake), and costs a great deal less.

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